I watched something amazing last night: the running gunfight with the Marathon bombing suspects in Watertown, MA. The interesting thing is that I didn’t watch it on CNN; I followed it on Twitter.
I’ll leave it to you to look up the details; what I want to talk about this morning is how breaking news information was being shared in this age of New Media.
I got wind of something happening outside of Boston at about 10:45 (Pacific time) last night. Just before heading to bed I decided to check in on Twitter and saw a cryptic reference to a gun battle with grenades in the Boston area. I typed in the hashtag #Watertown (the burg where it was happening) and was greeted with an incredible stream of on-the-ground observations; some were from residents of the areas, others were from people listening to the police radio traffic, and others were curious folk who simply went out and started gathering information.
As this information (including still and video images) hit Twitter a picture of what was happening on the other side of the country began to grow. People reported what they saw, heard, and even smelled; one user wrote about the bullets that had lodged in his living room from the shootout on his street. Another user quickly put together a curated list of people who were on scene and reporting, so that you could follow everything they posted even if they hadn’t used the #Watertown tag. Several more sprang up as the scope of the incident expanded, bringing new Twitter users into the coverage.
Yes, a lot of the information was incorrect but an extraordinary thing happened: almost as fast as erroneous information was posted, others jumped in to correct the falsities. One user heard over the police radio that a local hospital had declared “Code Black”, checked the ‘net, and found that was hospital-speak for a bomb threat. That was out for perhaps a minute, total, before a bunch of other users jumped in and pointed out that we didn’t really know that for sure, since hospital codes were not standardized, and that everyone should calm down until they got confirmation.
Wild speculations were countered by more measured responses, and in the few instances where users tried to interject a political message (usually something about the failure of gun control), other users shouted them down. The information, the stream, was more important than political positions. An ad-hoc editorial ethos, along with a commitment to accuracy, was being crafted in the same real time as the information was coming in. I can’t begin to communicate how fascinating this was to watch; it was like an inanimate object coming to life in front of my eyes. That was perhaps more exciting than the event itself.
While all of this was happening, CNN had yet to report that the incident had even occurred. Real time information was being disseminated to a worldwide audience while traditional media was still talking about the weather in Dubuque.
At the same time the supposed benefit of traditional news outlets – depth and accuracy – became more and more suspect. Having watched more than my share of breaking news on CNN, the most recent being the Marathon bombings, I’m intimately familiar with how the on-air talent behaves. On the networks a thing like the hospital code, for instance, would likely be reported erroneously for quite some time before someone finally figured out that they didn’t really know what that meant (if they ever did.) Talking heads, the news readers, would fill valuable air time with idle and often wrong speculation; the folks on Twitter, having only 140 characters, focused on being succinct and factual, if incomplete. They admonished each other to report only facts and to check those facts as best they could before tweeting, which is more than CNN did on Tuesday.
Even more surprisingly, as the various traditional news outlets started their catch-up reporting their errors and speculations were quickly corrected by the Twitter users on the scene!
This is important to understand: the same errors, omissions, speculations, and poor reporting plague both the Twitter feeds and CNN (as well as Fox/ABC/NBC/etc.) The major difference is that people have direct access to Twitter, and can correct that which is incorrect. With the networks and the newspapers, if they ever do own up to their mistakes it might be days later. In this case, real time reporting resulted in real time error correction because the information stream wasn’t being manipulated by a centralized source.
This idea of the people who consume the information being the same ones who report and validate that information is a sea change. Like Craigslist, where the readers are in charge of what they read and can flag off those ads they don’t deem appropriate in their community, Twitter reporting eliminates the biases of gatekeepers; the users are their own gatekeepers, and their biases can be immediately countered by others. The result may be a fuller, if sometimes less clear, picture of what’s happening in our world.
Critics will point to another self-curated information source, Wikipedia, as an example of why crowdsourcing information can’t be trusted (while conveniently ignoring the errors which have always plagued printed and “vetted” encyclopedias.) Yes, this kind of information flow is by nature confused, confusing and incomplete, but all information sources are! At least with this one, people aren’t under the illusion that it’s completely authoritative and objective. The result is a skepticism which has too long been missing in our consumption of the news.
Did Twitter, as some are claiming, displace traditional media last night? I won’t go that far, but I do believe crowd-sourced journalism made a huge breakthrough. It can be messy and very difficult to follow, but its self-correcting nature and its incredible immediacy are attributes that the news networks can’t match. Perhaps this will cause the networks to reevaluate how they handle the news, and maybe they’ll put new emphasis on being deeper and more factual than they’ve been of late.
(Yeah, that last sentence sounded naively silly to me, too.)
-=[ Grant ]=-